The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release

June 3, 2004

UI Researchers Receive $475,000 NASA Grant For Polar Rocket Study

Craig Kletzing, project principal investigator and associate professor in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Department of Physics and Astronomy, has received a $475,000, three-year NASA grant to study a phenomenon related to how the sun interacts with the Earth's magnetic field, creating effects such as the northern lights.

The grant is part of a larger $1.6 million NASA project led by Kletzing that includes co-investigators from Dartmouth College, West Virginia University, Goddard Space Flight Center and The Aerospace Corporation, a private, non-profit corporation with headquarters in El Segundo, Calif.

Kletzing and his colleague, assistant research scientist Scott Bounds, plan to launch two nearly identical sub-orbital sounding rockets from the Andoya Rocket Range in Andoya, Norway. The site is located about 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the western coast of Norway. The rockets will be launched in December 2005 and will travel some 300 to 750 miles above the Earth to observe the effects of a naturally occurring phenomenon, known as "magnetic reconnection," that acts like a switch by permitting energy to be transferred between the solar wind and the Earth. The switch is responsible for causing the northern lights, as well as occasional interruptions in radio and satellite communications.

Kletzing says that simultaneous ground-based measurements made with radar and imaging detectors will be compared with measurements taken with the two rockets to provide a broad picture of the phenomenon.

" We're trying to determine if reconnection is a pulsed phenomena or if it is patchy and taking place at multiple locations. By launching the two rockets three-to-four minutes apart, we can compare the data to figure this out. If reconnection is pulsed, then the pattern the rockets observe should shift northward for the second rocket. If it is at multiple locations, then both rockets should see pretty much the same thing," he says.

He also plans to study the properties of waves that occur in both space and laboratory plasmas (thin, electrically charged gases) called Alfven waves. Such waves are thought to influence the northern lights, as well as such phenomena as the solar wind and the Earth's magnetopause. In 2003, Kletzing and his colleagues received a $450,000, three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for laboratory studies of Alfven waves.

Other research by Kletzing and his colleagues includes 2003 and 2002 winter travels to Alaska to launch sub-orbital sounding rockets designed to study the northern lights. The UI rocket launches, in turn, were part of a long line of distinguished University of Iowa research into the nature of the northern lights. In 2001, Kletzing and a research team, led by UI researchers Robert Mutel and Donald Gurnett, reported finding a novel way to remotely pinpoint the source of Earth's most intense, naturally occurring radio noise. They showed that the radio noise, called auroral kilometric radiation (AKR), is being emitted along magnetic field lines about 3,000 miles above bright regions in the Earth's northern lights.

In 2000, UI researcher Jack Scudder and an international team of physicists made the first direct observations of the switch that permits energy to be transferred between the solar wind and Earth. Additionally, in 1986, UI researcher Louis Frank and his colleagues used NASA's Dynamics Explorer 1 spacecraft to capture the first images of the complete ring of the northern lights.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009,